Easily the most widely anticipated game of 2011, the series' fifth main sequence game also has much to live up to from fans. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was a let-down for some, and developer Bethesda Game Studios then took their talent in a different direction with the excellent Fallout 3. So it's been over nine and a half years since the last truly excellent installment in this storied series of games.
Yet here we are, a decade older, and ready to experience The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda has lost none of their ambition. This time we're traveling to the titular northern region of Tamriel, rimmed by grand snow capped mountains and home to the hardy Nord people. The desolation and emptiness that characterized Fallout 3 is nowhere to be found in Skyrim. Despite the frozen wilderness setting, this is a rich, vibrant nation with plenty to see and more to do.
This review is based on over 205 hours of gameplay, including an exhaustive 190-hour playthrough at the default difficulty level, and 15 hours at the most challenging. All impressions are from the Xbox 360 version of the game.
If for some reason, perhaps a strange form of journalist torture, we were forced to write only one word about Skyrim, we would choose "diverse." In a game of this size and scope, the possibilities for fun are seemingly endless. So to provide a thorough gameplay analysis is actually to pick apart the most important mechanics from an incredibly extensive list of features.
One of the most unique elements of The Elder Scrolls is its first-person perspective, a design that almost no modern RPGs adopt. It may be tempting to assume the melee-based gameplay suffers from this narrow perspective, and indeed the combat in Oblivion was somewhat formulaic, but Skyrim has received a very nice upgrade here. Swords, axes, and warhammers now clash and repel against shields, and other weapons, lending combat a visceral, brutal element that it's been missing all along. Embellishing this are finishing moves a la Fallout 3, which trigger randomly and result in decapitations, impalements, or other bloody ends to your foes. Together, this is a recipe for fun, satisfying combat, and we loved the experience throughout.
For those who are above such messy combat, the way of the mage has also been upgraded. Magicians may now map spells to each hand, then charge and fire them independently, resulting in some deadly combinations. An effective spellcaster may burn enemies to death with a gout a flame pouring from the right hand, while extracting the poor fool's soul with the left. For especially powerful enemies, it's possible to map the same spell to both hands and combine them for an extra devastating attack. And of course, freedom is the name of the game here, so there's no reason not combine swords with spells if desired.
Other player archetypes haven't been improved so dramatically. Archery, for example, is adequate but unrefined. Less powerful perks are associated with the archer's lifestyle, and aim is difficult, particularly at low levels. We were also disappointed by the lack of detailed hit boxes, meaning skillful headshots do not result in instant kills or even extra damage.
Stealth gameplay, while sometimes fun, also lacks the polish of other styles. While we appreciate the detailed calculations that factor in equipped gear, skill level, and even ambient light into the player's ability to hide, enemy A.I. just isn't programmed like NPCs in say Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid. The result is a fairly basic stealth experience.
All this combat is going to net you plenty of experience points, and before long it will be time to level up your character. Leveling is particularly fun in Skyrim because Bethesda has carried over the "perk" system from Fallout 3. Each time you achieve a new level, aside from an extra ten points to health, magicka (this is like ammo for spells), or endurance, you also get to pick a perk. While they've been toned down from the often ridiculous perks found in Fallout 3, each new perk grants a major bonus in one way or another. These could be anything from a 20% weapon damage increase, to a zooming reticule while aiming a bow. By the end of the game, you will have transformed from a weakling into a nearly indestructible demigod.
That's a good thing, because many of the enemies faced in previous Elder Scrolls titles, from mud crabs to atronachs, are back for more. Not to mention the notable new enemy type you may have heard of...dragons. It's hard to view a Skyrim screenshot, and impossible to watch a trailer, without catching a glimpse of at least one dragon. In-game, they're pretty awesome too. Swooping down without notice, spouting flame at you from the sky, then perching on a nearby home or castle turret. Dragon attacks are among those ecstatic gaming moments when the music swells just right, and you can't help but smile at the epic-ness around you.
These battles are a lot of fun, and stay that way for a long time, which is impressive considering how common they actually are. We expect players over the 100-hour mark to eventually become bored by dragons, though by that time you'll be powerful enough to kill them in a few hits anyway.
When you aren't locked in battle with ancient monsters, you'll get to enjoy the best part of Skyrim: exploration. Who would've thought just walking around could make for a fun videogame? Well, that's what happens when your environment is this compelling. The land of Skyrim is mind-bogglingly detailed. From tiny streams rippling and snaking around forested trails, all the way out to misty mountain peaks in the far distance, and everything in between; Skyrim is simply the most detailed contiguous landscape ever seen in gaming. And it's huge too! The map is about as large as Oblivion's, but the need to navigate around huge mountains makes the environment feel even larger. Different regions have different climates. The south is warmer, with thick deciduous forests and plenty of wildlife. To the west, rocky crags flank winding rivers, giving dragons plenty of places to hide. At the center of the map, the fields of Whiterun extend for what seems like miles, coating the landscape in a vast plain. And up north, the colder temperatures lock the snowy landscape in perpetual blizzards.
There are nine such regions, or "holds," and each of them has a capital city, plus smaller feudal towns in the surrounding area. Of the nine capitals, six are highly distinguished by their design and architecture, though all are worth exploring. In between the cities and towns, you'll find the landscape dense with forts, caverns, campsites, ruins, and all manner of fascinating locales worth checking out. Each new location has the potential for adventure, and there are literally hundreds of these locations dotting Skyrim from end to end.
As you summit mountains, track across tundra, or delve deep into underground caves, you'll constantly come across loot, which can be carried with you and used. Maybe you'll find a sword that's better than the one you've equipped, maybe some new boots, or a helpful potion. Maybe, like most people in our office, you'll carry around every single thing you find until your inventory is full, that's certainly an option. Most treasure is randomly generated according to an invisible algorithm, and we found this reward system carried on at a pretty decent clip. We were rarely underpowered, sometimes overpowered, but always hungry for more.
If you're lucky, you may stumble upon a "Word Wall." These are huge stone carvings with writing on them in the ancient speech of the dragons. Of course dragonese is a second-language to you, so you'll only remember a single word from each wall. Once you've memorized that word, you can spend a dragon soul (you absorb these from slain dragons) to master a "thu'um" or "dragon shout." There are twenty shouts in the game, each with three levels of potency. Honestly, about half of them are useless, but the rest are spectacularly fun. Your thu'um can be used to fling opponents into the air, shout fire, control the weather, and even slow down time.
If all this sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. Given the vast, intimidating world around you, there may be a need for some structure in your life. That's where quests come into play. There are hundreds upon hundreds of tasks to complete within the game world. The most obvious ones are part of the main quest line. They frame the primary story of the "Dovahkiin" or "Dragonborn" (that's you) and his or her efforts to stop Alduin--Nordic God of Destruction and very cool looking dragon--from bringing an end to all life in the realm. Though this entire quest line only lasts about 15 hours, short for an RPG, the rest of your time with Skyrim is fleshed out by secondary objectives, such as performing tasks for various factions, like the Thieves Guild, the College of Winterhold, the Companions, and many others. Like previous Elder Scrolls games, helping out a faction will cause you to rise higher and higher in the organization, and eventually become its leader. There are also countless random side quests handed out by NPCs in towns and villages, many of which offer surprises you'll never see coming. Finally, you may not have heard yet, but there's a war on in Skyrim. The law-abiding but cowardly "Imperials" are facing off with the freedom-fighting but slightly-racist "Stormcloaks." The player may enlist with either side of the civil conflict, and help their cause to victory.
The true greatness of Skyrim isn't the sheer number of available things to do, but the fact that they're all so remarkably compelling. To populate a 200-hour game with content is amazing, but to fill a 200-hour game with good content is an absolute marvel. We think the legacy of Skyrim will not be the immersive world itself, but rather the characters and conflicts that occupy it. We cannot speak more highly of the quest design in this game.
Since all these quests are just so darn fun, you should find yourself with a pretty lengthy service record of adventure in no time at all. Remember all that loot and equipment you found along the way? You're going to need a place to put it all. The inventory management system has received a complete overhaul. Gone are the dated, medieval-themed menus of Oblivion. They've been replaced with a simple, clean interface for sifting through all your stuff. Inside the menu, the cardinal directions of the control stick are used to access skills, equipment, spells, and maps. From there, branching sub-menus drill down to the items you're looking for, all very quickly and efficiently. Commonly used items can be mapped to a quick menu, which can be opened directly without breaking the flow of combat.
But a better plan for all that extra stuff is to actually do something with it. Selling is one option. Just about every town will have a general store, and likely a few specialty shops too. Here you can use the same painless interface to sell items you've acquired for gold, and also buy new items like weapons, armor, potions, spells, food, and books (did we mention the game contains hundreds of short books that expand on the lore).
If you've come across some special materials, it may also be possible to create new items from scratch. Using the local blacksmith's forge, skilled characters can use scraps of metal and leather to improve existing weapons and armor, or create an entirely new set. We had a lot of fun with this mechanic, and the payoff is nothing less than some of the finest items in the game. At the time of release, smithing was also rather overpowered, however this advantaged was "nerfed" by a recent update.
Enchanting can also be a very powerful skill, especially when combined with smithing. Enchanted weapons can produce extra damage, but enchanted armor is even more powerful. Permanent enchantments like skill boosts are hugely effective in the hands of a powerful enchanter. Clever players who take advantage of both techniques may find their characters drastically overpowered relatively early in the game. We found soul gems (a necessary ingredient for enchanting) to be much more readily available in this game than others, and took advantage of that fact to have the most fun with this mechanic since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind back in 2002.
Less fun is alchemy, which some people certainly have a good time with, but we didn’t find it quite as satisfying as other creation methods. Scattered realistically around the world are hundreds of different ingredients, such as flowers, insects, mushrooms, and many others. After first tasting each ingredient to establish a baseline effect, these can be combined at an alchemy station to create potions of diverse strengths and purposes. The mechanic isn’t awful, but the game is a bit light on explanation and this results in a lot of trial-and-error. Sort of like real alchemy, we suppose.
There are also a few freeform odd jobs available, which are helpful for earning resources within the relative safety of a city or town. These include wood chopping, mining, cooking, gathering wheat, and others. While such activities may seem insignificant, we absolutely love their inclusion because they make the world feel that much more complete. It’s refreshing to know the game is equally capable of supporting a quiet, peaceful life in Skyrim, as it is capable of indulging world-saving fantasies.
Speaking of indulging fantasies. Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls title to feature a romance mechanic. Like alchemy, the game is light on explanation once again. This is sort of a shame, because finding yourself a spouse requires some fairly specific actions. We won't spoil anything, but it's more than a matter of talking to the most attractive NPCs around you, like many other games.
After (or before) meeting your soul-mate, it's fun to settle down and buy some property. Five of the nine holds have homes available for sale to the player. They're quite expensive, and even more expensive to adorn, but taking ownership of a small part of Skyrim's vast landscape has a grounding effect on the player, and will make you feel like a part of the world. Fully upgraded homes have plenty of items inside, ready to move and customize at your leisure. They also have furniture, including chests and wardrobes for your gear, and shelves to keep your books. Resting in your bed grants an experience bonus, and sleeping beside your spouse grants an even better one. Moments inside the home provide necessary downtime from the life of a Dragonborn. In many ways they complete the holistic gameplay experience, adding a final necessary element to your fictional life in Tamriel.
Console controls are highly intuitive and reflect a lot of smart design decisions. We absolutely love the "one trigger per hand" approach, by which players can map any combination of weapons, shields, or spells to each of your characters hands and use them in tandem. Want to swing an axe while shooting bolts of lightning? Simple. Want to shield with your off hand and punch bare-fisted with the other? Okay, little unorthodox, but fine whatever. This style of control really draws you into character, there's nothing quite like unsheathing your sword and charging into battle for the first time.
We also like the way dragon shouts are handled. They get their own dedicated button, the right bumper, and the length of time that button is held dictates how many words in the shout are spoken and therefore how powerful it is. This is very satisfying. For example, sometimes a stock enemy needs to be thrown off balance during a fight, that's when the quick tap is appropriate. But at other, more important times, arch nemeses need to be hurled off the side of a mountain, flailing helplessly to their doom. For those occasions, hold down that button, and you can almost imagine your character taking a deep breath and screaming your foe out of existence. Awesome.
Other than that, controls are standard and without issue. Movement sticks are responsive, with no trace of lag or unwanted acceleration.
Skyrim is highly replayable and the reasons are two-fold. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that you will miss something on your first time through the game. In fact, you probably won't even come remotely close to experiencing everything the game has to offer. Second, given the wide variety of character races and skill specializations, it's likely your follow-up character will have a completely different gameplay style than your first. If that doesn't define replay value, we don't know what does.
Thus far, Bethesda has been too busy squashing technical bugs to complicate the land with even more content. There have been a few additions, like kill-cams for projectiles and spells, and some Kinect functionality will soon be patched into the Xbox version. Beyond this, our money is on a proper DLC announcement sometime in the near future.
Pacing is of course largely up to the player. It's entirely possible to ignore quests completely and do whatever you feel like. Within dungeons however, pacing is attended to by the designers. Most will start slow and exploratory, giving the area a sense of mystery and age. This is succeeded by long sections of fighting, usually over the course of multiple levels and load screens. One or two puzzles may break up the action, which then finally culminates in a difficult battle. Each and every dungeon has some sort of secret passage or "backdoor" that provides an easy way out, addressing one of the most widespread criticisms of Oblivion.
All this being said, we don't consider Skyrim's pacing perfect, but it's a step above previous games in the series.
A.I. doesn't ruin the game outright, however NPCs aren't very bright, and this affects gameplay in a number of very different ways. The first and most obvious is the intelligence level of followers. In Skyrim, a few NPCs can be made to follow the player and participate in adventures right alongside them. They help you in combat, carry some of your stuff, follow rudimentary orders, and do a lot of stupid things along the way. This may include jumping out in front of your swinging sword, repeatedly triggering obvious traps, giving your position away during stealth sequences, or becoming completely lost altogether.
The lack of attention paid to A.I. also extends to enemies. Most attack patterns consist of running straight at you and then swinging away. Every once in awhile they'll use projectiles, or block and parry for a period of time, but most enemies are dumb fodder for your sword.
In cities and villages, most NPCs seem deep and interesting. Many have lengthy conversation trees, with complex backgrounds and families. But the way they respond to other stimuli is unconvincing. While some will occasionally notice dropped weapons, they don't respond to player behavior with realism. As long as they don't actually see you steal, for example, they won't call you on it; even if every single item in their home is missing and you're standing in the center of the room holding their favorite staff.
These are a little disappointing because the problems have existed since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind but haven't yet been improved in a complete way. Then again, the issues only stand out because the rest of the world is so realistic, and at least this leaves us with something to be excited for in the next game.
You are the Dragonborn, a prophecized hero imbued with the blood of dragons, capable of speaking their language, and your journey through Skyrim will be a complicated one. For an open-world game, we were consistently impressed by the twists and turns of all the intertwined plot lines. Prepare for a novel in gaming form.
Dialogue is mostly very interesting, with witty, diverse writing across the board. You will be regularly surprised by the twists and turns that quests often take, and each quest–major or minor–is treated to to the same high quality material.
Unfortunately the story is often delivered by scripted events, and while Bethesda certainly tried their best, a game of this size cannot match the cinematic control and precision of a more linear game, like Uncharted for example. This problem is worst when the story's reach exceeds its grasp, like in the "epic" battles that conclude major quest lines. We wish the storyline had developed in a way that the game engine could handle without compromise. An emphasis on more intimate storytelling may have been better.
Skyrim is made of player choice. Every action taken in the game world is up to you, linearity is entirely absent. Want to follow the main quest? Go ahead. Want to ignore the dragons and focus on alchemy? Sure thing. In fact, entire groups of "alternative" Skyrim players now populate internet message boards. We've heard of PC gamers playing as photographers, simply walking around the world taking screenshots. Some folks play hyper-realistic, turning off music and the HUD, but cranking difficulty all the way up. We've even heard of playing as a beggar, living on the filthy streets of Whiterun. The game is utterly open-ended.
As it pertains to storytelling however, player choice has a somewhat limited impact. Sometimes you'll find conversations or quests that present ethical dilemma's, but they're purely for role-playing, there is no hard-coded morality system or anything like that. Of course there's the civil war, you must choose a side to participate, but this only serves to lock out the opposite quest line until your next playthrough. There's also one major decision to be made at the end of the main quest, but this can actually be safely ignored without repercussion.
Voice acting is a mixed bag. Most characters have a similar, distinctively Scandinavian accent. While this certainly fits the lore, it can be pretty jarring--and even silly, in our immature way--at the outset of the game. We did fall in love with a few really great characters, mainly because of their acting. These would be the rebel Ulfric Stormcloak, the wise Paarthurnax, and the main antagonist Alduin.
Bethesda's complex world is not a resource-hog, instead relying on art and consistency to provide a cohesive, believable place to explore. It's clear that a massive amount of time was spent on conceptualization alone, and the team's foresight has paid off in a huge way.
Technically speaking, Skyrim isn't a particularly advanced game, but the art team has gone to great lengths to not only take every advantage of the engine, but to create a stunningly beautiful world in the process. Skyrim is utterly consistent with itself. Nordic influences reign supreme, but each region becomes gradually distinguished from the others, while still remaining true to the overall fiction. The world isn't simply detailed, but feels old and storied, like the Nords really have been living there for hundreds of years.
Art design in gaming plainly doesn't get much better than this.
As many console games tend to do near the end of their life cycle, Skyrim favors complex geometry over perfect textures. This results in some blurriness, but not too much, especially with all downloadable updates installed. Draw distance is particularly impressive, making the journey to every mountain peak worthwhile and spectacular. We were also impressed by the realistic mists and clouds that cling to high mountains, an effect we haven't seen in real time before. Water shaders are also nice (until you actually dive in), and many effects, especially spells, are gorgeously animated and worlds ahead of Oblivion.
Character models have also been dramatically upgraded, they now animate with weight and realism. Faces are vastly superior to Oblivion's silly-looking ones, in fact all human bodies are much more convincing than in previous titles.
Many bugs in the code were found at launch, including some very severe ones. Most have been patched by now though, and Bethesda is finally transitioning into the process of adding features, rather than fixing old ones. Overall these aren't the most sophisticated graphics technically, but you'll be too impressed by the majesty and grandeur of the world to notice.
No series does ambient music like The Elder Scrolls. We were immediately pulled into the fiction by sweeping orchestral themes and-- You know what? This is a written review and we're not going to be able to do it justice here. You're going to need to listen for yourself. Highest possible praise for Skyrim's music.
Sound effects heighten the immersiveness of both exploration and combat. While traveling the land, it's possible to turn off music entirely and allow yourself to be drawn in by the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees, the cascade of waterfalls, and other ambient sounds of the woods. In battle, cuts and parries are matched with sharp, biting sounds that add a sense of potency and danger to every conflict. Like the music, we have nothing but praise for Skyrim's audio effects.
Skyrim is the rare gaming experience that may come along only once in the life of a console. Bethesda's carefully crafted world is utterly encapsulating, irresistibly compelling, and a blissful place to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours.
The attention to detail in this land is astounding. Every square inch of the Skyrim was designed by hand, and it shows. From micro-level elements like vegetation and boulders, out to macro-level peaks and landscapes, everything seems organic and unique. Each new region is distinguished from the rest, either by its landmarks or its people, but usually both. The result is a complex, convincing nation that feels like a real place.
The wide-open, nonlinear gameplay benefits from an incredible variety of features. How many games can claim to offer melee combat, ranged combat, stealth mechanics, magic, character customization, open-world exploration, loot drops, hundreds of hours of questing, a barter system, armor enchanting, alchemy, romance, and home ownership?
Oh, and dragons. Don't forget dragons.
Yet the true strength of Skyrim isn't its size, but its quality. Nearly each and every single quest, even the short and unimportant ones, are cleverly written and often full of surprises. The fact that this game is so full of content, and so much of that content is actually good, is absolutely unheard of. We don't expect this new standard to be surpassed for a long time.
Of course the game isn't perfect. A world of this size was sure to release with a few bugs left un-squashed. Things aren't so bad on Xbox 360 (though PS3 owners had it rough since the last free update), but NPCs can often be rather boneheaded in combat, while the denizens of towns and villages will often display an immersion-breaking lack of awareness for their surroundings and their situations. Yet these complaints don't so much ruin our experience of the game, in fact they only serve to leave us even more excited for the inevitable Elder Scrolls VI.
But for now, Skyrim is the finest game of 2011, and will surely be regarded as a classic for all time. We offer our highest recommendation, and urge any RPG fan–and really all gamers–to play it immediately.
Meet the tester
Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.
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